Some archery seasons are still open in key whitetail states, but there’s no sense in denying that late-season bowhunting can be really tough. By late December or early January, most bowhunters have either tagged out or given up. Only in the South is this still considered bowhunting prime time.
Still, even if you have set your bow aside, I have something you can do that will hopefully get you back in the whitetail woods with a mission. Now is the best time to scout your existing hunting area, or even go find a new one. The things you learned this past fall, and the questions that remain, are still fresh in your mind. The woods are open, so you can easily see the subtle terrain changes that influence deer movement. And the sign is all still there to help you solve the puzzle. Now is a great time to lace up your boots and go for a walk.
The Big Picture
Rather than randomly walking, you need to think big first and then narrow things down. Every single tree in your hunting area is a potential stand location. The first step is to work thousands of trees down to a few hundred in a handful of general locations that are worth a closer look.
Start this process at your kitchen table with an aerial photo and a topographic map of your hunting area. Here is what to look for:
- Undetected Entry and Exit Routes: The key to any great stand site is your ability to hunt it without the deer knowing you have been there. This requires a bulletproof entry and exit route. So, the first step as you scout this winter (and probably the most important one) is to map out all the ways you believe you can get in and out of your hunting area without being detected. Mark these on the maps and hopefully some of the killer stand sites you discover when scouting will be close to one of these critical arteries.
- Point A and Point B: The second step is to find all the Point A and Point B locations in your hunting area. These are the feeding areas and bedding areas. You can make an educated guess at the likely bedding areas. Any experience you’ve had on the property will help you better interpret the aerial photo. Look for pockets of cover, ridges and points. These are common bedding areas. The feeding areas should be fairly self-explanatory: ag fields, food plots, oak ridges and timber cuts rich in browse. Now, it’s easy to draw lines between them: between the feeding and bedding areas for afternoon hunts and between two bedding areas for morning hunts. Mark it all on the map or aerial photo. Find as many as you can, because not all of them will be huntable due to poor access and/or swirling, unpredictable winds. As you scout, you will transform those straight lines on your maps into crooked ones that account for how deer actually travel when using cover and terrain.
- The Travel Routes in Between: These travel routes will include ditch crossings, creek crossings, inside field corners, narrow bottlenecks of cover, bluff edges, pond or lake banks and saddles and fence lines, to name just a few of the possible funnels. Look for anything between each Point A and Point B that restricts deer travel and therefore puts the odds a little more in your favor. If you aren’t sure, just guess. That is what makes this time so valuable; even if you are wrong, at least you have a starting point. You can learn as you go.
Mark everything — hunches and all — on the photo and take it with you. Now, it is finally time to get out and start walking.
Boots on the Ground
The first thing you should do when you start walking is to check out those potential entry and exit routes. This is really scouting backwards; you find the best entry and exit routes and then seek out the best stand sites near these. In the end, this works much better than trying to find the sign and deer trails first and then figuring out how you can hunt them. By that point, you will have too much of your imagination invested in the stand site (you can just see the bucks walking past) to scratch it from the list. If you are like me, you will end up trying to hunt it no matter what. That’s not good!
Since you have partially limited yourself to only spots you can access without being detected, you have to look a little harder for the best stand sites. Look beyond the obvious. Finding subtle travel routes is the toughest scouting skill to master and one of the most important. Many times, you will only find these by taking your best guess and then fine-tuning your first stand choice after you actually start hunting that area and watching how the bucks move through it.
Passing the Test
It is one thing to find a great spot, but it is completely another to find one that also permits undetected hunting. It does you no good to hunt a high-activity area and educate every deer that uses it in the process. It is far better to hunt the best stands you can find that don’t educate deer and then put in your time. Success will come eventually, as long as the deer don’t know you are hunting them. I have already mentioned the importance of having a great entry and exit route, undetected and into the wind. This is absolutely critical if you are serious about shooting your share of whitetails.
Wind direction while on stand is the second test your potential stand locations must pass. Is there a wind direction for each stand location that blows your scent in a direction from which you don’t expect deer to approach? Don’t try to thread the needle. If you don’t have at least 90 degrees of safe area downwind, you should rule that stand out as being too risky.
Stands located in low spots protected from the direct flow of the wind are generally poor choices, since these locations promote swirling. The wind will seem to blow from every direction as it eddies down in these spots. In fact, any time a possible stand site is protected from the direct flow of the wind, you can expect swirling. This could even result from super-thick cover such as cedar trees or even oaks with full foliage on the upwind side. Be cognizant of the risk you are taking with these kinds of stand locations, and hunt them at your own peril.
The Right Tree
Hopefully, this process of elimination has yielded at least a few potential spots for next fall. The exact tree you place your stand in, and where you place the stand in that tree, is very important to your eventual success.
The downwind fringe of each potential stand area is the most conservative choice, and that is the best starting point. You can always fine-tune the stand site after actually watching bucks move through the area.
Finally, you have to pick a tree that offers cover, and you have to place your stand in the tree in a way that permits a good field of fire without making you stick out like a sore thumb. Increasingly, I have accomplished these seemingly incompatible goals by setting my stands on the backside of the tree and standing while hunting. That permits me to hide behind the tree when deer are close. It works great.
If you choose not to place your stand on the back of the tree, you need a tree with limbs and leaves at the correct height to break your outline. Don’t just pick an open tree and hope for the best. This rarely works.
There are still a number of seasons open, but I readily admit the late season can be tough with a bow. I have shot some nice bucks after the rut, but the number is not high; fewer than 10, for sure. All my late-season success stories have one thing in common — I didn’t hunt much, but rather watched and waited until the time was right before making a move.
The deer that remain after the firearms season are spooky, and you aren’t going to get away with many hunts in one spot before the gig is up. Here are the two conditions to look for when deciding to press in after the rut:
- Daylight Activity: Capturing daylight trail-camera photos is your first indicator. You want to know when a shooter buck starts showing up in daylight. As soon as you see this, get in the blind or stand the next evening that the wind is right. Daylight activity, noted either from long-range scouting or from trail-camera photos, is a huge, flashing green light.
- A Passing Cold Front: Even if you aren’t getting daylight photos of a shooter buck, it is also worth risking your elementof surprise when a cold front is blowing through. I have had this work several times. Though I knew each of these bucks was in the area, they had not shown up on camera in daylight all fall. The combination of food and a cold snap has the power to bring them out. Focus on the day the front goes through and the day after.
Going through this three-step process of elimination will give you a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each stand you hunt. You will know what stands represent a compromise and which ones are no-brainers. This should help you manage your impact more carefully next fall. Being able to calculate the risks you are taking every time you hunt is a great skill to develop, but most importantly, by using this step-by-step approach, you will soon be sitting in the best stands your hunting area has to offer.